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Don’t look now, but Major League Soccer is quietly establishing itself as a legitimate source of young talent

It is time to take a second to appreciate the phenomenon that has been unfolding recently within Major League Soccer. With increasing regularity, European clubs are turning to the MLS to find young, talented players.

Today, Jonathan Tannenwald broke the news that Belgium’s KRC Genk has completed a deal for Philadelphia Union defender Mark McKenzie.

The news comes on the heels of an ESPN story that Italian giants Juventus will be looking at MLS players during the January transfer window. ESPN cites USMNT midfielder and FC Dallas product Weston McKennie’s success with the club as a motivating factor. The story lists Bryan Reynolds, Ricardo Pepi, Caden Clark and Julian Araujo as likely targets for Juve.

A move for Reynolds seems particularly likely. Mlssoccer.com contributor Ari Liljenwall recently reported that Juventus are the frontrunners for the 19-year-old full back. 

The MLS website also shows that McKenzie is not the only player to have received interest from Belgium. Dylan Butler reports that 20-year-old Orlando City forward Daryl Dike has caught the eye of league leaders Club Brugge. 

Of course, no discussion of high-profile MLS departures would be complete without a mention of Alphonso Davies. The 20-year-old Canadian has emerged as one of the world’s best left backs since leaving Vancouver in 2018. Davies played a key role in Bayern Munich’s 2020 Champions League victory, becoming the first Canadian to lift the trophy. More recently, Davies earned himself a spot in the 2019/2020 FIFA Men’s World 11, becoming the first North American and the third youngest player ever to receive the honor.

League Ramifications

As an MLS fan, this trend is incredibly exciting for a number of reasons.

Increased Spotlight

First and foremost, these moves raise the profile of the league both internally and externally. 

Foreign clubs and leagues will begin to see MLS in a new light as these moves become commonplace. MLS graduates succeeding in Europe’s biggest leagues will garner praise and respect for both the players and the league itself. The likes of Juventus targeting young players does a great deal to dispel the false narrative that MLS is nothing but a retirement league. 

Additionally, young players will begin to view MLS as a great option for getting noticed by elite clubs. This element will add an extra incentive for signing with an MLS club. In turn, these moves should help MLS attract even more exciting players going forward.

Reaping What You Sow

Part of why these moves are so noteworthy is because they demonstrate just how far Major League Soccer has come since its inception. It can be easy to forget that the inaugural MLS season took place in 1996. As far as top flight leagues go, Major League Soccer is still very much in its infancy. 

Those who have been listening to Grant Wahl’s podcast, American Prodigy, will know that Major League Soccer’s reaction to a talented young player 15 years ago was lightyears away from what it would be now. With 14-year-old Freddy Adu in 2004, MLS skipped any attempts at player development. Instead, they asked Adu to serve as the face of the league long before he was ready to do so. 

Luckily, the league has made tremendous progress since then. These recent signings reflect the finances and hard work that have been invested in improving the player development aspect of Major League Soccer. 

As we start seeing more of these transfers, the improvement will begin to pay off exponentially. Transfer fees paid for young players will provide an additional source of revenue for the league. That revenue can then be invested back into the league via the clubs’ academies. Once again, this will create a cycle in which MLS is able to use new resources to develop even more players with increased success.

Conclusion

At face value, these moves are great to see because they demonstrate that MLS players are receiving opportunities with some of the most famous clubs in the world. 

Additionally, supplying a sustainable source of young talent opens up new avenues for the league itself. It would be great to see the league as a collective learn a thing or two from individual clubs like Ajax Amsterdam, which is famed for its strong academy system. 

Ajax have proven that investing in young players, selling them for a profit and utilizing the funds to uncover new talent can be a very successful business model. Ajax’s focus provides them with great players as well as a consistent source of income when said players earn a chance to move on.

A similar approach to player development could mean great things for MLS, but also for U.S. Soccer as a whole. 

We are already seeing a number of talented young American bursting onto the scene at the professional level. Doubling down on developing players may well provide the best way to strengthen the federation and league while continuing to increase the popularity of the sport at a national level.

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– Andrew Fasciano (@afasc573)

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